for the ‘Don’t Go Back to School’ Category

September 11, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School party/teach-in on Sept 12

It’s Don’t Go Back to School Season. I’m throwing a party and you are all invited.

Don’t Go Back to School party & teach-in
Thursday September 12, 7-9pm
180 Varick St. Suite 1610

This is going to be an amazing night of celebrating, teaching, and learning. One of the biggest lessons I discovered in researching and writing Don’t Go Back to School is that learning together is the way people learn and create. I’m on a mission to make that better known and more possible, and this party is all about doing that.

I’m gathering some of the smartest people I know to talk about getting started learning things like creative writing, coding, cooking, loving art, and graphic design. Plus there will be beer and snacks. Come learn with us and stand up for independent learning!

Clay Shirky on being an autodidact (there’s a catch)
Nick Gray (Museum Hack/Hack the Met) on art appreciation
Keira Alexandra on graphic design
Jacqui Maher (New York Times) on learning to code
Kristen Taylor (Saucy Magazine, Al Jazeera Fault Lines) on cooking
Peter Richardson on learning new things really fast
Madhu Kaza on creative writing

To make the night even more special, I’ve recruited the team from Make It Happen to be on site doing ritual consultations that lead to commitments to learn and make things happen in your life. It’s a really special experience and I’m so excited to give it to you.

I really hope you can come, and I’d love to meet you, so please make sure you introduce yourself!

September 10, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School on Sale!

Amazon has dropped the price of Don’t Go Back to School, the Kindle book is now $9.99 and the paperback is $17.

If you need an ebook in a .mobi or .pdf format, email me and I’ll set you up with a discount to match Amazon’s price of $9.99!

Happy Don’t Go Back to School Season.

July 22, 2013

New Don’t Go Back to School interview: Jimmie P. Rodgers

“Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it.” jimmie

Jimmie P. Rodgers is a programmer, circuit board designer, artist, teacher, and writer. He dropped out of college several times over 5 years and a handful of majors, and did not complete his degree. With no formal training in electronics, he currently makes a living selling DIY electronics kits of his own design, and is well known in the hacker/maker community. Like others I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School: a handbook for learning anything, Jimmie cites his local Dorkbot chapter as an vitally important in his journey as an independent learner. Participating in the group’s events and mailing list led to the creation by Jimmie and others of a Boston hackerspace/gallery (now defunct) called Willoughby and Baltic. The space, with its extensive tools and machinery, along with a strong community of committed makers and learners, was a crucial learning institution for Jimmie. I was also struck by Jimmie’s insight about workplaces that had rigid degree requirements—that they would be quite hierarchical and not a workplace he’d thrive in.

I’m basically a self taught electrical engineer. I have no formal training whatsoever in electronics, but I make a living making open source hardware and selling electronic kits through my website and a bunch of retailers online. I went to college for five years and had more than enough credits to graduate, but still didn’t get my degree. The problem was I kept switching majors every year because I wanted to learn what I was interested in, not a bunch of prerequisites. So, I started off in computer science and I did that for the longest, almost two years.

I first went to a community college because of residency requirements for in-state tuition for the university, and I actually had a pretty decent time there. It was a very practical and hands on. But when I got to the university, it was kind of potluck. Most classes are designed around standardized tests. I had a real problem with that. I knew I learned better when it was more open-ended, more about thinking. Some of my instructors were fantastic and really engaging. I had a history class on imperialism and the early 19th century through 20th century that was entirely essay based and I loved it. We weren’t learning a set of facts. You had to find something you were interested in and you had the space to focus on it. But most were like my calculus teacher. He would come in and just talk, write some stuff on the board and then walk out.

Then later at the university in the Computer Science department, I got very bored with the course work. I’d do assignments my own way, to make them more interesting for me. Once I used the Game of Life, which is a program with only four rules, but you can do pretty complex things with it. I used it to program something which was technically very complete—it generated output and reacted to output—but it used 600 lines of code instead of the twenty or so that was the ‘right answer’ for the assignment. I had fun and got creative, and that wasn’t what they wanted. Everybody was expected to do the exact same thing. And that didn’t suit me well.

I did learn a lot at the university, but it wasn’t technical stuff, it was life stuff. Like living with people, and talking to girls. I got socialized. It was a good experience that way. I encourage people to at least try it. But maybe not stick around for five years if you figure out it’s not working for you.
While I was in school, I also started my first business doing tech support for students. That actually got way too popular. I had more business than I could handle. Because of that, I got a taste for having my own business, and some experience at it. I had already been working with computers from the time I was fifteen in high school. By the time I dropped out of college, most of my other friends had their four year degrees, some in computer science. But, I had close to eight years of experience on my resume, plus a half dozen different certifications via the community college, which the larger universities didn’t even offer. So, I found work right away, anywhere I went.

I did run into a number of jobs where they said, we’re concerned that you didn’t finish your degree. And some employers it was just flat out, no, this job at this pay grade requires a degree. And then there were other employers who looked at my application and said, well, come in. And then when they saw what I could do they said, oh wow, you actually know your stuff. That’s right, because I’ve been doing it.

It wasn’t really a problem when I ran into a situation where they won’t hire you because of some qualification or degree you’re missing. What that tells me is it’s going to be a very bureaucratic, hierarchical type place, which I don’t do well with. It’s not that I have issues with authority or anything like that. I actually like having a good competent boss who can help direct me. I just don’t like the arbitrariness of the way bureaucratic places work. Things just have to be done a certain way with no reasons. And anyplace like that is usually not going to reward creativity.

In terms of what I do now, I really got going in electronics while I had a normal 40-hour a week job, so I actually had spare time to myself. This was around 2006. I made enough money that I could just buy an electronics kit that I got interested in, and a good soldering iron, stuff like that. I started getting kits through Adafruit and Sparkfun, and using their tutorials.

At that point, I was mostly learning from the internet, and then I got involved in Dorkbot and hackerspaces, where you get to learn stuff with other people physically around you, instead of just being in touch online. I bought some books as well. It was all driven by the fact that I really, really wanted to know how these things worked.

In the hackerspace I was part of in Boston, I started running workshops, that were very informal, like, “There’s an electronic synthesizer I’d like to build. The parts to build it cost this much money. If we get ten people together, it’s one quarter of the price for each person and so is anyone else willing to go in on this?” I’d get 15 people who’d want to do it and luckily I was in a position where I could just buy all the parts and then have people pay me at the class.

I didn’t know how to teach, I just organized people to get together and figure it out. I said, I’m ordering the parts, let’s sit down with the schematic and the instructions and build one of these things. Then five or six of us would get one working and then get everyone’s working. After that, I would often run a workshop teaching how to do whatever it was we’d figured out.

I fell into the teaching role because I really enjoyed it. For those classes that I didn’t know anything going into them, I was teaching and learning at the same time and then following it with teaching, I learned it so well. No other method works as well for me. I still try to do that; anything that I’m learning how to do, I just run a class on it. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t have fear about doing that because people are understanding as long as you’re up front about it then it’s fine.

Effectively, how I got into designing electronics was by doing. It’s not any more complex than that, I did it. I sat in my room late at night struggling with learning to solder. It’s easier now. Having resources so freely and easily accessible online is really important. The instructions are there and if I had the hacker space at the time I could have gone and learned how to solder in five minutes. On the other hand, I know how to solder really, really well since I had to figure it out.

Connecting with people was also a big way that I learned. Mitch Altman, who is big in the hacker electronics scene and sells kits, he became my mentor. Very early on when I was starting with my electronics business, he sat down with me and went over openly the finances of everything that he does, how he does it, how he has everything structured. That was super helpful, having somebody sit down with me who’s doing the kinds of stuff that I wanted to be doing. That’s actually been way more effective than school. I learn things so much faster in that way, sitting down with people who are engaged and like I’m engaged in the same thing. I get a lot of information from people I don’t know. I send people emails asking questions about various things. At hacker conferences if somebody gives a talk on something that’s interesting and later on I see them at the conference, I might sit down and have a beer with them. That’s one of the magical things about conferences.

I’ve generally found that if you’re enthusiastic about something and you talk to somebody else who is also enthusiastic about the same thing, they tend to also be enthusiastic about talking to you about it. This is how I’ve met all my personal heroes. They tend to be quite approachable because I’m excited about the same things they are.

To read more interviews like this, check out Don’t Go Back to School on Amazon or get the ebook here.

May 7, 2013

Asking and Giving: the way we live now

This will start with a gift and end with a call-to-arms.

Among the happy things the internet brings me, from time to time, is a bit of writing so striking it stays with me. Nothing to do with facts or the immediate moment. Rather something about what it is to live right now. In this manner, I held onto an essay on cities and loneliness, by a writer named Olivia Laing. The essay is part of a book, which turned out to be a book I very much wanted to read. I found her site and learned that this book, which touches on themes I am obsessed with, strangers and cities and how it is to live among them–this book did not exist yet. The last line of Laing’s page about the book is this:

If you’re interested in supporting The Lonely City, I have a wishlist of research material here. All donators of books will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

So I did it. I sent her a book from her Amazon wishlist of research materials she needed and couldn’t afford. And I tweeted that I had done so. Someone who follows her asked for the link to the list, and this morning I found out that I am not the only one to have sent her a book. Which is the most wonderful outcome I can possibly imagine.

What I’m interested in here is how in our culture right now, the ivy of generosity is growing over every structure we have built. The research and first printing for Don’t Go Back to School was funded by Kickstarter backers. We create, publish, and sell our work now outside traditional channels, and we make communities in the process. None of this is new, but its pervasiveness is new.

One of the most significant findings of my research for Don’t Go Back to School is that people learn together. They form communities and learn with and from each other. They have as much access to experts as any enrolled student would. The people I interviewed told me stories about asking experts questions–polite, respectful questions (in the book they give advice about how to formulate these). They told me stories about those experts taking them seriously and helping them.

We are deep in the culture of generosity now in how we learn and think and create and contribute and live. It did not seem strange to me to ask strangers to support a book I wanted to write, and it does not seem strange to me every time I support another person’s creative production. It did not seem strange at all to me to send a book to a stranger, a writer whose work I wanted to read more of. It does not seem strange to me when people ask me for advice about independent learning. It does not seem strange to me when people write to me after reading my syllabi on the internet and ask me to suggest further reading on specific topics they’ve discovered there. None of those seem strange at all. They are a part of how we live now. If you are not living that way, you are doing it wrong.

April 30, 2013

All the Names

Last week, I did a repetitive, mundane thing. I printed postage labels for each of my Kickstarter backers to send them their copies of Don’t Go Back to School.

Except it wasn’t mundane at all. I printed postage labels for around 900 people who were about to become my readers. I saw their names, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully common. I saw the names of their towns and cities, wonderfully colorful and wonderfully familiar. Nine hundred real people, every single one of whom knows how to reach me and tell me what they think about the book.

Writers don’t get this, under ordinary circumstances. Readers remain abstract and mysterious unless they come to your readings. Writing is terribly, terribly lonely, any writer will tell you this. All those names made it less so.

Writers don’t print their own postage labels either, under ordinary circumstances. I’m not trying to tell you it’s fun, it’s not. But it’s also a task I hope every writer will have a chance to do sometime in their careers. It represents a newly-possible relationship between writers and readers. We’re all real people here.

April 3, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School Table of Contents

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April 2, 2013

Don’t Go Back to School excerpt

School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value—in every sense—of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and on the economy itself. The student debt crisis reaches through every facet of people’s lives. It affects the housing market as grads with debt are likely to be refused for mortgages, the auto industry as they put off buying cars, consumer spending in general, and decisions to start families. After college, grad school can seem like a refuge from the weak economy, which piles up further debt without clear returns. College students who go on to graduate school also delay the dilemma of the weak job market by using their continued student status to dodge familial pressure to succeed economically. They do this even as it becomes clearer and clearer every day that degrees may not increase their likelihood of getting a job.

This book is a radical project, the opposite of reform. It is not about fixing school, it’s about transforming learning—and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option. I think all the energy and money reformers spend trying to fix school misses the real problem: that we don’t have good alternatives for people who want to learn without going to school, for people who don’t learn well in school settings, or for those who can’t afford it.

Because while you don’t have to go to school to learn, you do have to figure out how to get some of the things that school provides. Since most of us grew up associating learning with traditional school, we may feel at sea without school to establish an infrastructure for learning. This consists of things such as syllabi to show us an accepted path, teachers to help us through it, ways to get feedback on our progress, ready-made learning communities, a way to develop professional networks that help with careers later, and physical resources like equipment and libraries. In its best and most ideal form, school provides this infrastructure.
But not very many people get to go to school in its best and most ideal form, and my research shows that many learners feel they do it better on their own. People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.

I speak from experience. I went to graduate school at Yale and I dropped out. I had been amazed that I was accepted, and even more so that I was offered a fellowship. Surely this was the fast track to something impressive. But leaving all that behind, to my great surprise, was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes. I had invested long years and a lot of work in the degree I walked away from, but I also had innocently misguided reasons for wanting it in the first place. I was fresh out of college and my only thought was that I wasn’t done learning.
Nobody had told me that liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors, which wasn’t what I wanted to be. Here’s what my graduate school experience was like: I took classes for two years and learned one thing. It was not a fact, but a process. What I learned was how to read a book and take it apart in a particular way, to find everything that’s wrong with it and see what remains that’s persuasive. This approach is useful to people who are focused on producing academic writing, and it’s a reasonably good trick to know, but I could have picked it up in one course. I didn’t need two years, and it’s pretty annoying to only get to talk about books in such a limited way.

My third year, on the other hand, was bliss. I was left alone for a year to read about 200 books of my choice. I spent that time living far from school in a house in the woods, preparing to demonstrate sufficient command of my field to be permitted to write a dissertation. This was the part of grad school where I really learned things. And for me, what was most significant about the year was that I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it. As I read the books on my lists, I taught myself to read slowly, to keep track of what I was reading, and to think about books as part of an ongoing conversation with each other. I learned to take what was useful and make sure it was credible and leave the rest aside. I did this with a pen in the margins of the books and by talking to people about what I was reading. I had the luxury of a year to devote to it, but I devour a lot of books even when I’m busy working at a job, and I could have done the same thing over a longer stretch of time. I learned that I didn’t need school after all.

Years later, I ran into a young, successful woman who was known for hosting a popular monthly salon on art and technology and for her work as a blogger for a cultural institution. She told me she was toying with the idea of going to graduate school, and wrinkled her nose at the thought. But she lit up when she started describing the things she wanted to study, such as art history and curatorial skills. I reached back to my own hard-won lesson about what liberal arts grad school is really for. I asked her if she wanted to be a professor. She said no. So I asked, “Why do you want to go back to school?” She shrugged a little, and said, “Well, I just want to learn things and be smarter about the things I do.” That’s when I got excited. I had some really useful advice on this, and I got to be the person to tell her about it. You don’t need school for that.

December 30, 2012

Massive Open Online Classes are getting it wrong.

All the public conversations right now around higher education are getting it wrong. Everyone’s talking about the free access to college courses that Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) are creating. They talk about the potentially detrimental effects platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and MITx, might have on the higher education industry. Whether or not these online classes count for anything in terms of credentials. The economic value of college itself. That’s all important. But no one is talking about learning. Read more …

April 26, 2012

Video: my Skillshare Penny Conference talk

I gave a talk last week with a fascinating roster of speakers at Skillshare’s first Penny Conference, to an audience of enthusiastic independent learners. Everyone in the crowd considered themselves an independent learner, and more than half of them had dropped out of school at some point in their lives.

All the speakers gave fascinating presentations, and it was exciting to hear some of the themes I’ve been finding from my interviews turning up in other people’s research as well. Tony Wagner, who works on restructuring K-12 education to promote innovation, noted the same things my interviewees reported about what’s wrong with school: a lack of autonomy and control over their learning, being taught vs. active learning, the paucity of really engaging teachers, and having no room to fail. Among many other questions, I asked my interviewees how they figured out where to start, what path to follow, and where to get help. Zach Sims, founder of Code Academy, cited these questions as the dilemmas his site tries to solve for people who want to learn programming.

Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent, reframed the idea of gamification in an educational setting for me. I’ve been talking a lot with educators about taking the inherent gamification out of traditional education: grades, honors, achievements. These cater to extrinsic motivation, while intrinsic motivation is a much stronger driver of learning that people find satisfying and worthwhile. His talk revolved around the part of games that involves collaboration, narrative, and quests, which give learning a context, purpose, and interdisciplinary approach. I love having my mind changed, thank you Aaron!

And thanks to Skillshare for inviting me to speak!